Sunday, December 02, 2007

Two books on the history of democracy

Thanks to a heads-up from Phil Paine, I've recently looked at two books relevant to the history of democracy.

The first is G.P. Singh's Republics, Kingdoms, Towns and Cities in Ancient India (New Delhi, 2003) is a somewhat antiquarian discussion of what's known about the various smaller political entities of India since Vedic times. It concentrates on surveying the evidence, which in the case of nearly every republic or kingdom covered, is very fragmentary. This is not for the casual reader, or where even the serious scholar starts to investigate the ancient republics and democracies of the sub-continent. I suggest my own on-line article and bibliography, which references a variety of printed works.

Shorter and aimed at a student audience, I'd guess, is Alan T. Wood's Asian Democracy in World History (also 2003, part of a Routledge series of short introductory books on "[Something or Other] in World History"). There were things I liked about this book. For instance, it cites my work and Phil Paine's, in print and online. It also surveys recent democratic developments in that part of Asia east of Iran and Afghanistan (Siberia excluded) in a reasonably sensible manner, using reasonably sensible criteria. Better yet, it places the striving for freedom seen in such developments in a universal context. It's not just "western civilization" that can provide roots for democracy. But then, Wood occasionally falls into trite, cliched and even false generalizations. For instance, in discussing the role of the "market economy" in the development and maintenance of democracy, he cites the supposed commitment of socialist economies to "equality." No, he's not talking about Norway,* but Cuba:

In Cuba, for example, everyone may be equal, but they are equally poor.

Really, Prof. Wood, even Fidel and his brother?

So I can't give this book an unqualified endorsement (for what that's worth), but it's short and to the point and better than many other analyses of the Asian situation.

*Norway may or may not be "socialist" by your favorite measurement, but they've tried real hard not to be corrupted by their oil wealth -- no easy matter.

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